HOW SHAME UNDERMINES LEADERSHIP - INSIGHTS FROM A CASE STUDY

In the following sections, the case analysis is presented. First, the case set up is displayed, that is, background information and the initial framing of management and of the consultant about the problem they encounter. Next the case is reconstructed, based on a framework that highlights leadership as a certain relationship between leader and follower, based on mutual respect (or the lack of it), and how shame plays its part in the relation to leader identity and the relationship to the workforce.

Leadership under Pressure — The Case of a Newly Acquired Lace-Dying Factory

The main characters of this case are Richard, Henry, Geoff, and the staff at a lace-dying factory which was recently acquired by Richard and his father Henry. Richard is the managing director and is running the floor together with manager Geoff. Geoff is also new to this company, but has been working with Richard and Henry for nearly two decades at other businesses. In what is to follow, I provide a reconstruction of the situation and contrast the different explanations of management, the consultant and staff.

Richard and Henry describe the problematic situation they’re facing as such: Richard and his father have been working in the textile industry for at least two decades. Eighteen month prior to the filming, Richard (at that point in time 39 years old) and his father bought an old lace-making business, founded in 1899. Richard describes the relationship with the staff as problematic: “We have to push all the time to get things done, push, push, push to get things done.” Workers are having pauses, working slow, doing shoddy work, or not following instructions:

Richard: I am telling them what I want and it is not being done. I will write it down, but yet it is not being done, the simplest of tasks are not being done. They it seems to be traditional that they just throw it in. It just seems amazing, it is such a valuable fabric and they just throw it through the door. Now what do you do with people that are just basically either not listening to you or feel that what you are telling them is wrong.

Consequently, productivity and quality of work are low, which means high costs. In combination with the high debt due to the acquisition, the financial situation puts Richard and Henry under a lot of pressure and stress.

As a result, Richard and Geoff are following a rather authoritarian leadership style which emphasizes high demands and control: it is just a

big job to put it right, you have got to be on the factory floor all of the time.” When asked about the causes, Richard answers: “It is quality issues, it’s people.” Manager Geoff has similar, but even more telling answer: “It’s tending to be a little bit in the dark ages here and it is just a case of educating people as to what the current trade requires.”

From the point of view of management, the situation is framed quite clearly. The problem is “people” — people who work lazily, don’t have an acceptable quality standard, and need to be educated to move them from the “dark ages” to modern times. The authoritarian leadership style of management is a reaction to this situation. From this point of view, it follows logically that you have to exercise a high amount of control over your lazy workers from the “dark ages.” The followers “are” the problem. To treat the problem, they got to be controlled and “educated.”

From the point of view of the consultant, though, it’s not the followers who are the problem — it’s the leader. Robinson diagnoses: “it’s a sort of incredible aggression” that the management emanates, as well as “a panicky feel about him [Richard], he’s frightened, that anger all comes out of insecurity,” and relates this to the “huge financial commitment.” The leader “needs help[, that] is very alarmingly clear.” The consultant also highlights the other side of the coin — the situation of the workers, and connects it to the leadership style and personality of Richard:

Gerry Robinson: You have got a work force that is pretty disillusioned, they see you buzzing around. You are frantic about making things happen more quickly than they do. There is a kind of aggression there which maybe isn’t real at all, but stylistically you are actually quite frightening.

Gerry Robinson: You do frighten them in my view, let alone they are wary of you, I think you frighten them.

So far, the portrayed discourse is rather straightforward. Management and consultant frame their perspective in “personal” terms (people, leader). Emotions are also acknowledged in an implicit and explicit way, mainly fear (panicky, frightened) and anger (aggression), and some kind sadness (disillusioned).

Shame seems to be absent from the overt framing by management and consultant, but it plays a major role in this case — and it’s mostly hidden. The first contribution of shame can be seen when Richard is confronted with his leadership style. Richard loses his projected face, which triggers shame and a process of identity work, to find a new face and identity to be claimed. The second contribution lies in a personal belief of Richard that is prone to create potentially shaming situations — like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The third and major contribution lies in the vicious cycle of “one down” messages from management, which results in “one down” behavior of the staff, and subsequently prevents leadership to occur.

 
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